Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Pesticide Threats to Human Health

"Glyphosate-based products have been used safely and successfully for over four decades worldwide and are a valuable tool to help farmers deliver crops to markets and practice sustainable farming by reducing soil tillage, soil erosion and carbon emissions."
Bayer AG statement

"When it comes to Roundup they’re [governments] dead wrong. And I know they’re dead wrong because when you look at the science it’s pretty clear."
"[Government regulators are not] truly unbiased."
"If tomorrow they decided ‘you know what, it actually does cause cancer,’ they’d have to tell the world that for 40 years they’ve been wrong, that people have been dying under their watch."
"It’s a lot easier to keep the status quo."
Brent Wisner, U.S. attorney, Los Angeles-based
Bottles of Monsanto's Roundup pesticide are pictured in a gardening store.
Canada is "dead wrong" two visitors to Canada stated unequivocally, in not recognizing that the manufacturer of the glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup, is a threat to people coming in contact with it. The two, Michael Bauman and Brent Wisner were on the team of lawyers that managed to succeed in persuading the U.S. justice system to find for their client, a former groundskeeper who believes his terminal cancer resulted from years of exposure to the herbicide glyphosate, Roundup. 

Their client was the beneficiary of a court that ordered Bayer AG to pay $289 million, later dropped to $78 million, a significant agreement of the danger inherent in the use of the weedkiller. It is an order that the company is appealing, but over 11,000 additional plaintiffs in the United States are suing the Germany-based Bayer which since 2018 when it bought out Roundup maker Monsanto is left with the product they continue to persist in stating has no health risks to humans.

Lawyer Baum knows of no Canadians that have brought suit over Roundup, but he and his colleague Wisner arrived in Ottawa to meet with Members of Parliament on Parliament Hill to acquaint them with the issue, explaining evidence that proves glyphosate causes cancer. "There's going to be the same type of injuries suffered here", he assured skeptics.

The two lawyers will continue on to Toronto to work with Canadian activists and lawyers in a bid to determine how most effectively to proceed, with the intended purpose  of potentially beginning court action, according to CEO of Friends of the Earth, Beatrice Olivastri. "We're actively looking for ways forward in litigation", she stated.
Lawn care
American lawyers who successfully sued the makers of the glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup on behalf of a man dying of cancer say Canada is "dead wrong" to allow it to be widely used here. (File)
On the market for over forty years, glyphosate has its appearance in over 130 products available for use in Canada. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency branch of Health Canada has just recently re-approved glyphosate for use in the country following a process of review, including reviewing their assessments in the past following objections filed by eight organizations. Objections that included allegations that Monsanto improperly influenced evidence that Health Canada relied on to determine the safety of the product.

Agency scientists "left no stone unturned", discovering no evidence the science was tainted, according to Connie Moase, director in the health-effects division of Health Canada. Canada's review of glyphosate was thorough and proper, proving yet again that it is a safe product, stated Bayer, noting glyphosate is approved for use in 160 countries. "Twenty of our best scientists" reviewed the evidence before approving the project, stressed a spokesperson for Canada's Minister of Health. 

According to lawyer Wisner, the unbiased International Agency for Research on Cancer -- a specialized agency of the World Health Organization -- scientists were unanimous in concluding glyphosate is a human carcinogen. The glyphosate decision has caused a "crisis in confidence in Canada’s pesticide police", according to Ms. Olivastri of Friends of the Earth, Canada.

Side Effects Associated with Monsanto Roundup

Adverse side effects that have been allegedly linked to use of glyphosate products including Monsanto's Roundup include:
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Leukemia
  • Brain cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Infertility
  • Birth defects
Consumer Safety Watch   

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Dreaming and the Subconscious

"The most common ones [night-time dreams] include fear, helplessness, anxiety and guilt."
"A dream can be a fascinating window into another person's private life, and I've learned that paying attention to dreams can help us understand ourselves."
Alice Robb, The Times

"Dreams are a valuable tool for uncovering parts of ourselves of which we are often unaware."
"Dreams can be a window into the myriad thoughts, feelings and impulses that drive our behaviour. Every character in a dream, in addition to representing people in our lives, also always represent parts of ourselves."
"Dreams can guide us to our parts unknown."
Stephen J. Levitan, psychoanalyst, Columbia University, New York

"During the day we 'drive shafts' into our fresh chains of thought, and these shafts make contact with 'dream thoughts'."
"This is how night and day fertilize each other. This -- I've come to believe -- is how creativity is born."
"Think of it, perhaps, as a form of scenario planning."
Marina Benjamin, insomnia sufferer
The meaning of dreams
Seb Oliver/Getty Images

"If you close your eyes and dive into yourself you can see a different world."
"It's like exploring the cosmos, but inside yourself."
"You go to a different place, where it's very dangerous and scary, and it's important to know the way back."
Haruki Murakami, Japanese novelist
By closing his eyes Mr. Murakami stirs his imagination to lead him to the creation of scenarios, characters, and in the process finds grist for the mill of his novel writing. This process, he reveals, leads him to places within his mind delving deep into places he has little conscious knowledge of, trusting his subconscious to treat him kindly and feed his writerly muse. He has no need of dreams, he says, being able to channel his mind deep into himself dredging up what he has no way of knowing is there, but valuing the process and profiting from it.

Many people invite their dreams to happen and feel as though in their dreams they enter another world, both familiar and unfamiliar. To them, it may be akin to reading an interesting novel, watching an exciting play, taking part in a mysterious process that takes them to unique places they would otherwise not be aware of. Many other people consider their dreams hostile to their waking well-being and feel fear when they dream, considering many of those dreams to represent nightmares.
Dreams about flying
Yulia Popkova/Vetta/Getty Images

It can be the difference between finding yourself in an atmosphere that allows you to glide or fly, giving a sense of freedom and satiating curiosity about just what it might be like to view everything from above as a bird would. Still other people can find themselves in precariously dangerous situations, or that they're being pursued by something or someone threatening them, while others discover themselves to be in strange surroundings they want to flee from but cannot find their way to freedom.

When dreams inspire trepidation and fear the preference is to give them short shrift, forget their details as swiftly as possible, consider them as being of meaningless content, the result of a tired, overactive mind. According to Ms. Robb who wrote "Why We Dream", dreams and their content can be interpreted in many ways, including forewarning of what is to come and perhaps that forewarning can be used to prevent an unhappy outcome.

She cites scientific studies indicating that the interpretation of dreams can be useful, that in fact that dreaming has evolved to aid people to "work though our anxieties in a low-risk environment, helping us practice for stressful events and cope with trauma and grief." Just as Dr. Levitan feels that the interpretation of dreams can be a useful tool for patients in psychotherapy.
Dreaming about being chased
Didier Robcis/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Ms. Benjamin who suffers from insomnia wrote a book about her experiences in which she claims to believe that her sleeplessness might represent a portal between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, referencing a section in Ms. Robb's book discussing how people can train themselves to dream lucidly, giving "directorial control over the night brain's filmic productions", suggesting that insomniacs might be able to perform similar effects.

She mentions the awareness of a process described in 1899 in "The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud on making connections with dreams during waking hours.
"When Freud famously started analyzing himself, he used his dreams quite frequently in the process. Always a vivid dreamer, Freud had by this time also noticed the impact of dreams on his patients, including psychotic patients whose hallucinations were similar to dreams. Between his own experience and that of his patients, he concluded that dreams are almost always expressions of unfulfilled wishes."
German title page for The Interpretation of Dreams
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Grooming With Care

"Kids are smart and they're watching everything and everyone."
"The conversations should be about authenticity and honesty."
"There is a difference between discretion and hiding. Hiding encourages stigma because it is something that you keep from people. Having discretion is about responsible use."
"It's maybe not that I don't trust my own kids. I keep it [cannabis] locked and away from them so that they understand that it's an adult-use product."
"My job is to be a responsible user and store it [cannabis] responsibly and have these conversations. I want to have a dialogue with my kids about this."
Ashleigh Brown, founder, SheCann

"I just asked myself, 'I know my adult children are smoking it, so why am I the one hiding it?"
"We're all adults here."
Sabine Dolby, 56, Toronto

"There are downsides to [cannabis use], but if we don't talk about it, how are we really going to know?"
April Pride, founder, Van der Pop, cannabis lifestyle, Seattle

In this post-legalization world of cannabis access beyond medical use and into the recreational sphere parents of teens find themselves suddenly faced with the need to discuss the use of pot with their adventurous children, adolescents forever attracted to the exotic and 'forbidden'. It's good strategy. Just as good strategy and very badly needed, as when parents begin to discuss with their children the ins and outs of intimate sexual relations, how babies are born and how best to deal with one's hormonal cravings to experiment and learn first-hand what all the fuss is about.

In the Toronto of recreational marijuana legality, a recent event titled Women & Weed took place, where a number of speakers addressed the audience interested to hear first-hand from those upon whom they look as 'experts' to guide them in their own perplexing search how best to handle the sensitive issue of parent-child discussions revolving around the use of cannabis. Uppermost in mind of these parents is the certain knowledge that young people will and do extend themselves to discover first-hand what's happening.

That, linked to the medical community warning of the deleterious effects of marijuana use for young people whose brains are still developing and who, with the use of pot, can expose themselves to harm, makes the issue of primary importance. At that event, the founder of SheCann, an online portal enabling women in Canada to share their own use of medical cannabis experiences, emphasized the importance she places personally on making these discussions a continuous dialogue.

The #1 Parenting Tip of All Time

Ashleigh Brown of SheCann spoke of her own experience with medical cannabis begun in 2016, using it medicinally giving her children the decided impression that pot was a medicine, nothing more. Then she initiated discussions with her 14- and ten-year-old daughters about cannabis used by different people for a host of reasons; not necessarily confined to health. Both she and April Pride stressed the importance of conversations with children, to prepare them for the inevitability of being knowledgeable to a degree about weed they'll come across in future on the street and at parties.

There is a correlation, they stressed, between advising and discussing with children the effects of recreational alcohol, and no less so with cannabis. And one of the critical issues in such discussions is to explain why it is that marijuana is meant to be used only by adults, and until such time as young people join that category of maturity, its use can present a future health danger. Both women explained that they lock their pot away from their children. Despite which they feel that avoidance of conversation about cannabis use creates an aura of stigma, unhelpful in persuading kids to make considered decisions.
Kids Smoking Weed | Teens Smoking Pot

They recommend using resources as for example from Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy which views problematic drug use as a distinct issue of health, not an issue for the criminal justice system, advocating instead for harm reduction support. Talking to children about why and how people make use of cannabis is a start. Sabine Dolby who uses cannabis by prescription hid it from her children when they were young. Now, aged 24 and 30, she smokes with her children as a regular user and with legalization, feels relieved not to have to hide her use any longer.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction's position is that consuming cannabis on a regular basis during adolescence has the potential to cause loss of concentration and memory, and reduce thinking to incoherence. In a 2015 report, the Centre stated that regular use of cannabis is associated with experiencing psychotic symptoms and the development of schizophrenia, particularly among those with a family history of the condition.

There is a caveat that connection between cannabis use and mental illnesses, particularly acute anxiety, is not clear entirely, requiring additional research. The general consensus remains, however, that the effect of cannabis on not-yet-fully developed brains -- up to age 21 to 25 -- makes it imperative that such discussions do take place.

Marihuana leaves in head
Maren Caruso/Offset (leaves); Kichigin/Shutterstock (head); Sergejs Makarovs/Shutterstock (leaf)

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Vulnerability of the Human Brain

"Instead of looking just at how the head is moving, we can visualize what's happening to a representative brain model inside the head."
"It's next-level information that can be used to validate the computer models used in helmet design."
"We're trying to understand the specific injuries that the cells undergo when the brain stretches. We want to know how the stretch and pull response of the brain might lead to injury and, specifically, where those injuries might be occurring." 
"We want to understand the critical limits of what those cells and those structures can take before they're affected."
"The brain is a very complex system and understanding exactly what leads to injury is not a trivial matter. We're still developing that understanding."
"The ultimate goal of this research is to change the way helmets are designed to improve helmet response, and also to influence in the longer term how helmets are evaluated and the safety standards applied to them."
Oren Petel, researcher, mechanical and aerospace engineering, Carleton University, Ottawa
Folds in a human brain. David Duprey / AP

"In hockey, you don’t see people dying from a hit to the head, and that is because the helmet works reasonably well for catastrophic injury."
“Football, you do get some deaths, but it’s fairly well-managed or mitigated. But neurological disease and concussion are not managed very well by a helmet. So this data will be very helpful for us; it will get us precision. The better data we get to capture the risk of concussion, the more innovation we can do in terms of helmets to reduce that risk."
“So, when we look at trauma related to neurological disease, we are only validating part of the brain and its response to trauma. This study is going to give us a really good opportunity to map different parts of the brain. . . . We are going to be able to get into parts of the brain we think are really important in terms of predicting risk."
"The brain is mostly water, so it doesn’t compress, but it does shear. It’s like jello. You can’t compress jello easily but you can shear it. And when you shear it, you damage it, and that is what is happening in the brain."
"We’re trying to understand trauma associated with sport that put athletes at risk for neurological disease. We connect the trauma to disease."
Dr. Blaine Hoshizaki, director, Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory, University of Ottawa

Although research into concussion has advanced in the last ten years more is required to understand what happens in the brain when a high-speed collision occurs. The design of a helmet to increase protection against injury is a high priority. Professor Petal aspires for the research he is engaged with to ultimately ensure greater safety for athletes in sports competitions such as hockey and football. From his position at Carleton University, Professor Petal applied for funding to develop a design he came up with, an X-ray system, and an impact research laboratory.

He found that funding with the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund which came up with the required funding, and at a cost of about $320,000, both the lab and the X-ray system were completed in the space of two years. Ongoing research of Professor Petel's lab has brought contributions to his work from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

The completed laboratory is lined with lead to enable his very special type of research, equipped with a linear impactor, capable of delivering a head blow at 12 metres per second. An X-ray system capable of capturing images of the collision at 100,000 frames per second complete the major constituents of this very specialized research lab where Professor Petel and his research team are able to recreate what occurs with a helmet -- and the brain it protects -- during a high-speed collision.

The high-resolution images produced by the X-ray system lend themselves to the creation of a video -- known as cineradiography -- that illustrates interaction between a helmet and a head while at the same time revealing the physical response of the brain to an impact; the manner in which the brain compresses, twists and stretches. This revealing process and the information it contains will lead researchers in their work of designing improved helmets for hockey and football players, soldiers and cyclists.

In partnership with Defence Research and Development Canada, one project is to test what occurs to a synthetic brain within a plastic head model where markers are implanted inside the artificial brain for the purpose of measuring how it deforms in a collision. Yet another project in collaboration with Carleton neuroscience professor Matt Holahan is how pig brains [taken from an abattoir] respond to an impact. Validation of computer models commonly in use in head-injury research, another project.

When Dr. Petel studied at McGill University, he immersed himself in blast research when he joined the Shockwave Physics Group there. "It just sounded like a lot of fun, things impacting each other. And it was really challenging. Your experiments typically last several microseconds, several millionths of a second, and you have to collect all your data in the time before your experiment is destroyed", he explained.

He studied the response of ballistic armour and allied protective materials to an explosion, becoming ever more interested in the dynamics of blast injuries of what was occurring internally when a body was hit by a shock wave. And what made the lungs and brain so susceptible to injury, along with the question of how the tissue was becoming deformed. Which led the researcher to the conclusion that answers to those questions could improve protective equipment design.

As he initiated his study into injury biomechanics, at a conference years ago he questioned an experienced researcher why it was that more information relating to the reaction of internal tissue to a blast wasn't available. The response was there was no known way to measure what was happening at such high speeds. "So why isn't someone developing something to measure this?", he asked. "If you think you're so smart, why don't you do it?" was the comeback. So he set about to do just that.

Here, he sets up a machine that hits the “head” with great velocity from which he can measure impact and damage to the head. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Canid Migration Opportunists 

"Who would have guessed that  this small canid would be the likely winner of poisoning campaigns of wolves in the Balkans?"
"[For golden jackals in Europe], the moment of truth is soon to come."
Nathan Ranc, doctoral student, Harvard University/Edmund Mach Foundation, Italy
Getty   There are now over 100,000 golden jackals in Europe, as the population has boomed since the 1950s

Jackals, originating in the Middle East and southern Asia historically, have moved into Central and Eastern Europe, displacing the wolf population native to the area. Vastly outnumbering wolves in Europe, golden Jackals are assumed to total about 117,000 according to the latest estimate. A high estimate of wolves in Europe now stands at about 17,000.

Slovenia, for example, has between 200 and 400 jackals, according to Miha Krofel, a conservation biologist at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, there are 75 wolves.

Jackals weigh an average of nine kilograms, they are considered to be a medium-sized predator. At one time jackals existed only on the fringes of Europe. About eight thousand years ago the species began to arrive at the southern edge of Central and Eastern Europe, as evidenced by the fossil record.

They began to slowly expand into Europe in the 19th Century, but by the 1950s that expansion accelerated, particularly so over the last several decades.

Jackals mate for life, and a pair forms the core of a pack. Just as wolves and coyotes have family-based packs, so too do jackals, though their groups have a tendency to be more compact, four to six, as contrasted with wolf packs that may include 15 animals. Young jackals may remain with their parents, or they may choose to establish their own packs.

In some European countries such as Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, Italy and Bulgaria -- with the largest population -- there are now substantial populations of jackals. Biologists believe jackals began their migration north to fill the vacuum when wolves were being eradicated, particularly in the Balkans. Jackals appear to avoid geographic areas populated by wolves.
Smaller than North American coyotes, golden jackals weigh an average 20 pounds   Getty

Where snow appears on the ground over hundred days annually, jackals seem to avoid moving in, so it is anticipated that as climate change continues and snow cover declines, a greater number of European territories will become more attractive to the presence of jackals.

In southwest Slovenia the past three years saw a decline in wolf attacks on sheep farms. With the introduction of jackals, more sheep are now being lost, however, raising the hackles of farmers.

Once jackals establish a pack and reproduction moves steadily forward, offspring have the opportunity to establish new packs as migration into Western Europe commences. Nathan Ranc, the doctoral student working alongside Miha Krofel, conservation biologist out of Trieste, Italy, feels that more rigid procedures for waste management and livestock corpse disposal on farms will serve to deter jackal expansion in Western Europe.

Dr. Krofel's research team comprised of 37 scientists and naturalists, all volunteering to monitor the animals throughout Europe, hope to find some answers to questions respecting the existence of the jackals and their growing proliferation in a geography to which they have become migratory interlopers, making the most of opportunities available to them.

The jackal had a period of past glory: the Egyptian god Anubis was said to have a jackal’s head    Getty

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Life's Surprising Complications

"The youth's voice is always paramount. Although the consensus in the medical community in the 1960s and 1970s was to view gender variance through a disease model in which associated behaviours, expression and declared identity were deemed pathological and in need of correction, the current approach is an affirming one that does not view gender variance as pathological."
"[Family doctors are urged to take a] thoughtful, affirming [approach and to avoid] influencing the adolescent to move down a path they would not have chosen for themselves."
"Some youth find that their dysphoria abates as puberty starts, making it important to allow initial pubertal changes to occur."
"[However, the drugs [hormone blockers] can also buy youth time] to explore their gender identity and expression without having to worry about ongoing  pubertal changes and development of secondary sexual characteristics that may be psychologically disturbing and undesired."
"Many youth understandably express the desire to go through puberty in their affirmed gender at similar ages to their peers, which would necessitate starting gender-affirming hormones at even younger ages."
Newly published article, Canadian Medical Association Journal
Danielle Sheridan, 8, poses in her new pink bedroom. Born as a boy, she identifies as female and has chosen to live as a girl. Her peers and parents have been supportive.
Born a boy, Danielle Sheridan, 8,  poses in her bedroom identifying as a female and choosing to live as a girl. Her peers and parents have been supportive. Rene Johnston, Toronto Star

"Drop the Barbie [approach] where it was deemed almost like you should 'correct' a child's behaviour or a child's identity."
"The opposite side of that is you don't even address gender at all -- the watch-and-wait approach. You avoid it and see what happens."
"The validating and affirming approach is an approach that gives you a bit of both of those, in the sense that you should address it, but maybe you shouldn't try to correct it either, but see where the youth is and where the parents are working together as a team, so that that youth is functioning well, both physically and mentally."
"I tell families that it allows you to take a deep breath, but a very long breath, so you have more time to figure stuff out and gather more information."
Dr. Joey Bonifacio, adolescent medicine specialist, St.Michael's Hospital, Toronto

"There are certainly youth who persist in their gender dysphoria. But it's also not uncommon to have youth who, a couple of weeks ago, decided that, after talking with a friend or researching on the Internet that maybe they're transgender."
"[Lacking a proper assessment], the risk is that teens may be started on irreversible medical interventions [cross-sex hormones] that really aren't appropriate, and they may later regret it."
Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper, clinical psychologist, Boston Children's Hospital
Less than half of transgender youth feel comfortable discussing their health needs with their family doctors, a recent Canadian study concluded. Linked with the fact that wait lists at specialty gender clinics can be a year or even lengthier, the newly-published review gives family doctors advice on how they may support teens with 'gender dysphoria' -- what psychiatry labels the emotional upset that may come along with the incongruence between gender identified with and 'assigned' birth gender.

Recommendations on the use of hormone blockers meant to suppress puberty, along with 'cross-sex' hormones -- estrogens that develop a more feminine figure for trans girls and testosterone for trans boys to acquire a more angular jaw and masculine physique are summarized in the article. The review is seen as timely in the medical community in view of parents disagreeing between themselves over whether or not to credit a child's insistence that he/she has been recognized in the wrong gender to suit their emotional attachment.

"Social and peer contagion" resulting in "rapid-onset gender dysphoria" as the impetus pushing "cluster outbreaks" of gender dysphoria among friends created controversy when a recent study concluded with that hypothetical assessment. The study spoke to the theory that some teens (mostly trans boys, female to male) have been influenced by social media; YouTube transitioning videos in particular. The study was based on parental reports, and was swiftly attacked by advocates for the transgendered as methodologically impaired.

According to the authors of the CMAJ article, the sex ratio of teens presenting to transgender clinics seems to be alternating, "with many more youth who are assigned female gender at birth seeking care than those assigned male", with the reason behind the emergence of this new phenomenon, as yet unclear. Referrals to the gender clinic at B.C. Children's Hospital in British Columbia rose from seven in 2006, to 80 in 2017, as an example. And over 200 referrals are seen at the transgender clinic at Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto on an annual basis.

Studies from other countries beside Canada suggest that roughly one to four percent of teens identify to a different gender from that of their birth. According to the lead author of the new study, Dr. Bonifacio and his co-authors, hormone blockers should be given only when puberty starts -- at age 10-1/2 on average for children born female, and 11-1/2 for those 'assigned' to the male gender at birth. Hormones that normally increase during puberty are blocked by these drugs.

The international medical organization, The Endocrine Society's position is that cross-sex or 'gender-affirming' hormones may be administered around the age of sixteen, or as young as 13-and-a-half in particular circumstances. On the other hand, Dr. Edwards-Leeper who assisted in the creation of the first hospital-based clinic in the U.S. for transgender youth, is concerned that lacking proper assessments by trained mental health experts, family doctors might be too amenable to prescribing cross-sex hormones whose affects are irreversible.

Though puberty blockers can be life-savers for many transgender youth, estrogen for male-to-female transitioning causes breast development and testosterone for female-to-male can cause a permanent deepening of the voice. A too-hasty decision with respect to a child's future gender based on insufficient evidence that transition should proceed could mark that person for life in a manner that considerably complicates a delicate issue, rather than solving it.
Guidelines to be published Monday recommend doctors take an unconditional “affirming” approach, that drugs to stop puberty may begin as early as age 10-and-a-half and that “cross-sex” hormones — estrogens so that a trans girl develops a more rounded figure and testosterone to give trans boys a more angular jaw and masculine physique — may be administered at age 16. Getty Images

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Friday, January 25, 2019

The Mysteriously Movable North Pole

"It's only going to cause trouble for people who use compasses to navigate around. Even then most of them are used to making corrections. The old navigators would be a bit wise to this."
"It doesn't tell you there's anything weird happening, it's a natural process."
"Decade to decade you get variations as you might in the weather day to day in the atmosphere. If one gets a little stronger, than the others it pulls the magnetic field in that direction."
Louis Moresi, geophysicist, University of Melbourne

"The oldest ocean crust is a couple of hundred million years old — it gets destroyed by plate tectonics so we don't have older crust — but there's hundreds of reversals recorded in that ocean crust."
"There's no correlation with extinctions, but our society today is really heavily dependent on satellites and electronic devices."
"[We really don't know when or how fast a pole flip would or could happen.] People speculate all the time about the field reversing and there's some very nice analyses out there but the fact is we're dealing with incomplete information. We just don't know if it's going to reverse."
Andrew Roberts, paleogeologist, Australian National University

"People get excited when it appears to speed up or slow down, but it's unlikely we're seeing anything that's part of a more substantial swing."
"Even if you switch the Earth's field off, or you visit planets where there is no current field generation, you still see magnetic fields because rocks will carry remnant magnetisation."
"[And there's a rich history of pole shifts and continental drift written into Australia's ancient rocks.] If you look at rocks created at different times in Australia the direction of remnant magnetisation changes." 
"When you go to the regions of Australia that have magnetite deposits you get very strong anomalies [that distort the local magnetic field]."
"If you walked there with a compass, your compass would not give you the direction you would normally expect."
"In Australia, the Earth's field is typically about 50,000 nanoteslas. There's maybe a 15 nanotesla variation through what we call a quiet day."
Clive Foss, senior geoscientist, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation)
North magnetic pole and geomagnetic pole shifts 1900 - 2015
 Close to 3,200 kilometres within the Earth lies the liquid iron constituting the core of the Earth, generating its magnetic field, and there a jet has formed and it has been raging like a veritable storm at sea, roiling the molten iron under the Arctic. What is termed a 'geological gust' has shifted the Earth's magnetic North Pole toward Siberia, and it continues to do so, at a rate of an estimated 40 kilometres annually.

This alteration of the pole was reported in the science journal Nature. The new location of the North Pole is meaningful to those attempting to navigate accurately at very high latitudes. The thing of it is, we are no longer as dependent on compasses to determine where the needle points, since the advent of satellites beaming their messages more accurately in a more timely manner.

Usually, it falls to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to publish updates to the World Magnetic Model used by cellphone GPS systems and military navigators to orient themselves. Half of their staff, however, is on furlough until the partial U.S. government shut-down is concluded and all U.S. government offices return to normal operation.

In a fallback of necessity to navigational old models a discrepancy is obvious, one that increases its inaccuracy day by day. Why at this time the geomagnetic commotion is occurring is not yet known, though scientists acknowledge the movement of molten iron in the Earth's interior generates a magnetic field, one that fluctuates in accordance to the behaviour of flows.
Illustration showing how the Earth's molten outer core creates a magnetic field

That being so, the planet's magnetic poles are known not to align precisely with geographic poles (located at the end points of the Earth's rotational axis), and it is well accepted that the location of the poles can and do change with no warning. Earth's magnetic field has even been known to flip, where the South Pole has located in the Arctic and the North Pole opposite, according to records of ancient magnetism found in million- and billion-year-old rock samples.

A hundred and fifty years ago, James Clark Ross of the British Royal Navy found the North Pole in the Canadian Arctic during his search for the North West passage. During the Cold War an American expedition located the pole 400 kilometres to the northwest. The pole has moved 965 kilometres since 1990, crossing the International Date Line into the Eastern Hemisphere last year, while the South Pole has remained relatively stable.

These shifts require the World Magnetic Model to be updated every five years; the next one had been scheduled to take place in the year 2020.Suddenly strange signals were received through the network of magnetometers and satellites tracking the magnetic field, as the North Pole was accelerating in movement unpredictably to the point where the 2015 version of the World Magnetic Model became oudated and navigation tools reliant on magnetic fields for orientation were drifting off target.

According to research from geophysicist Phil Livermore of University of Leeds, the location of the pole is controlled by two magnetic fields, one under northern Canada and another below Siberia. Dr. Livermore reported the detection of a jet of liquid iron in 2017, appearing to be weakening the Canadian magnetic field. "It's very hard to know what's going on because it's going on 3,000 kilometres beneath our feet. And there's solid rock in the way", observed Dr. Livermore.

Illustration of the Earth's magnetosphere and composition

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Another 'Biological Wonder'

"After 20 minutes, we were still driving through these [large mounds located in northern Brazil], and I started saying, 'Well, what are they'?"
"As humans, we have never built a city that big, anywhere."
"These termites live on dead leaves, and they get to feed once a year."
"The first time I was there, it's just unbelievable. You just cannot believe what you're looking at. What's strange is they're really regularly spaced, as if there was a grand plan."
"They're actually the oldest living structures … made by insects and actually still occupied today, around about 4,000 years."
"These mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor."
"It's incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an 'unknown' biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present." 
Stephen J. Martin, entomologist, University of Salford, Britain
Murundus (termite mounds) in Brazil    Roy Funch

"[When termites build], the individual termite receives little signals from the other termites."
"It puts a ball of dirt down, and then when 100 million other balls of dirt are down, you suddenly have a mound."
"There are lots of different kinds of termite mounds. Some of them actually keep the termites cool during the day, and a little bit warmer at night."
"There's a lot to love about the termites, I think."
Lisa Margonell, science journalist

"This is apparently the world's most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species." "Perhaps most exciting of all -- the mounds are extremely old -- up to 4,000 years, similar to the ages of the pyramids."
"[They’re just amorphous lumps of soil, with no internal structures. Nothing lives inside them. Instead], they’re just slag piles."
"It used to be all green and brown, but around eight years ago, Google Earth sharpened their [satellite] images, and I could see the mounds that I had known from the ground."
"There’s no doubt that they’re termite-made. I’ve seen termites building the mounds with my own eyes. There’s no engineering involved. They’re just throwing the stuff out."
Roy Funch, ecologist, Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana, Brazil
A termite queen, left, and a termite king are displayed at the Chongqing Termite Control Institute, on May 16, 2007 in Chongqing Municipality, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)
They looked like huge mounds of dirt, as though a large construction project had left them there after something like a new highway had just been completed. But these mounds were located in a very remote area and clearly no large construction projects undertaken by human agency had taken place there. Dr. Martin's companions, Brazilians, informed him it was their impression the mounds represented hills made by termites, and as such they were indeed waste left over from large and ancient construction projects, but not man-made.

Then Dr. Martin met a Brazilian ecologist, Roy R. Funch, at State University of Feira de Santana who was busy planning to undertake radioactive dating in a bid to date the age of the mounds. Several years of investigation ensued where the two scientists collaborated on studying the peculiar mounds, each three meters tall, and nine meters wide. They determined that the construction of what they realized from satellite images was 200 million mounds, represented the industry of Syntermes dirus. some of the largest termite species; insects roughly one centimeter in length.
More than 200 million termite mounds have been discovered in Brazil, spread across an area so vast that they are visible from space. (Submitted by Stephen Martin)
Spaced on average about 18 meters distance from one another, the mounds spread out across an area somewhat equal to the geographic size of Britain. Radioactive dating of eleven of those mounds put the youngest at about 690 years and the oldest at least 3,820 years of age; about equal in archaeological terms to the Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt.  According to the scientists' calculations the termites would have to excavate 10 cubic kilometers of dirt -- equal in volume to some 4,000 Great Pyramids -- to build those 200 million mounds.

Tunnel networks are excavated below the earth, the dirt carried up along a central tube to the summit of a mound, and discarded there, enlarging the mound, bit by bit over time. The pattern revolving around the equal spacing of the mounds appeared to result from an inherently efficient spacing of 'garbage' dirt piles. The presence of the mounds has not been known to anyone outside the region, since the area is hidden by scrub forest where temperatures reach 38 degrees Celsius and greater for most months of the year.

In that landscape the trees are scorched by heat, where the landscape turns a temporary green following a limited month-long rainy season after which the foliage falls from the trees and the landscape once again reverts to its desolate, blanched appearance. It is those fallen leaves that represent the termites' food source, available for only a short period. Since the termites are so dependent on that source of food, when the forest is cut, while the mounds remain, the termites move elsewhere, deprived of their food source.

The area occupied by the mounds is hot and dry, unsuitable for agrarian purposes, though locals did make an effort to try to grow crops there, and failed. A part of the forest was cleared and it was hoped the ensuing field would be able to bear a crop; to no avail. When the two scientists investigated below the surface they discovered layers of 'galleries' where there was storage room for old leaves, and they could see nurseries where young termites were being nurtured to maturity.
Researcher Stephen Martin, bottom, stands next to a cross-section of one of the massive dirt mounds built by termites in northeastern Brazil. (Submitted by Stephen Martin)


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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Humankind's Obsessive Curiosity

"This is a historic step in international scientific exploration of the moon, opening up the Luna Incognita of the lunar far side to surface exploration for the first time."
James Head, scientist, Brown University, Rhode Island

"We use radio wave lengths to probe everything from black holes in the local neighbourhood to distant galaxies, so a radio observatory on the far side [of the moon] could be a huge boon to astronomy."
Briony Horgan, scientist, Purdue University, Indiana

"We would be able to listen to a distant echo of the Big Bang and see the universe in a state before the first-ever stars formed."
"That was a baby picture [cosmic heat map of the universe dated 370,000 years after the Big Bang]."
"[From the far side of the moon it might be possible to] see a movie of the evolution of the young universe from toddler to puberty."
Heino Falcke, radio astronomer, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands
An artist’s impression of Chang’e 4 on the moon. Photograph: Costfoto/Barcroft Images
The Soviet Union's Luna 3 beamed back the first images of the far side of the moon in 1959, informing scientists for the first time that the two sides of the moon -- the near side facing us and the far side facing away from us as the moon circles Earth in its tidally locked state, ensuring the same hemisphere points at all times toward Earth -- are different. There are more craters on the far side, and unlike the near side of the moon where seas of solidified lava are commonly seen to form the shadow shape of a face viewed from Earth, the far side has few.

Now that China has landed its Chang'e-4 lunar explorer, scientists from all over the world are anxious to understand finally why those two sides of the moon are so radically different; one illuminated by the sun and never viewed from our planet. China's second moon landing when Chang'e-4 settled on the far side on January 3 represents a milestone and the expectations are high that the data it will deliver will answer many scientific questions about the formation of the Universe.
The far side of the moon, as seen by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
The dark areas on the near side of the moon represent where ancient asteroids struck the moon's surface and when lava was  unleashed darkening the facade, smoothing it, and thus serving to erase the records from previous impacts. When the far side of the moon was struck by ancient asteroids on the other hand, no floods of lava ensued. Instead the surface was left with craters pockmarking it, leaving that side lighter, older and more heavily cratered.

This dichotomy occurred, according to some astronomers' hypotheses, as a result of the crust on the near side being substantially thinner than that on the far side, making ti easier for magma to emerge on the near side. Were that to be the most plausible explanation that through samples yet to be extracted and studied the mystery of the differences on each side's crust thickness might be explicated. Asteroids and comets smashed the rocky planets in the early history of the solar system, leaving craters.
Moon with landing sites
The Moon is divided into two basic physiographic regions: smooth maria and cratered highlands. The smooth maria fill the large circular basins and spill out onto low lying regions. They were sampled by Apollo 11, 12, 15 and 17 and Luna 16 and 24. The ejecta blankets of the large basins were sampled by Apollo 14, 15 and 17. The heavily cratered highlands were sampled by Apollo 16 and Luna 20. Note the great distances covered by rays from fresh craters. NASA photo no. 84-31673 (Lick Observatory)

Hopes are high even in these early days that Chang'e-4 may provide some of the answers to these critical questions of the early formation of the Universe. The moon's far side presents as a solution to a mystery whereas on Earth and other rocky planets volcanoes washed these craters away over aeons of time. Studying the far side of the moon is being viewed as an opportunity to assess and investigate a pristine surface of the moon's early days; in particular to unravel the geological record of the time when the moon was assaulted by ancient objects.

It has long been the dream of astronomers to build and install a radio telescope on the far side of the moon, shutting out the many sounds that emanate from Earth, such as cellphones, television stations and cars which a radio telescope on the near side would pick up, muffling the distant, more muted and ancient sounds of an exploding and forming Universe. Study of the primordial clouds of hydrogen gas that coalesced into the first stars of the Universe might be feasible with future lunar missions.

The geology of the far side is rougher, more cratered and contains more ancient material than the near side.  Tidal forces long ago slowed the moon's rotation so that the less-dense highlands of the far side face away our planet.   This topographic image from Nasa shows the highest elevations in red and the lowest in blue.  
China’s Chang’e 4 Moon lander touched down in the Von Kármán crater within the Aitken basin – the moon’s largest, deepest and oldest crater.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Nature's Human Health Formula

"[There is no one 'true' diet for humans, who] can be very healthy on a wide range of diets."
"We know that because we see a wide range of diets in these very healthy [hunter-gatherer] populations."
"Our whole species has evolved from hunter-gatherer communities. We were hunting and gathering before we were us, and if you want to understand how our physiology works it is important to understand hunting and gathering and how it affects our bodies and health."
"If you go live with hunter-gatherers, the thing you’re overwhelmed by is how active they are. You are on your feet all day moving — you don’t have the luxury to be lazy, and that impressed me a lot."
Herman Pontzer, professor, Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University, North Carolina
A Tsimane member. Image credits: jambogyuri.

"They [Indigenous Bolivian population] changed from their traditional diet to eating in town where everything is fried."
"They started eating fried chicken and rice and drinking Coca-Cola. Some of these folks can see a pretty rapid change in health."
Michael Gurven, anthropologist, University of California, Santa Barbara
"Close friendships and family bonds, low levels of social and economic inequality and lots of time spent outdoors are typical in hunter‐gatherer populations and other small‐scale societies."
"The absence of these in modern societies is associated with chronic social stress and a range of non‐communicable diseases, including metabolic disease and obesity. As we work to understand the evolutionary roots of modern disease, we should strive for a more integrative and holistic understanding of lifestyle and health among hunter‐gatherers today and in our collective past."
"Exercise may also help to regulate appetite, improving the balance between energy expenditure and intake and exercise has been shown to help maintain weight loss. The regulatory effects of exercise warrant further attention."
Study on diets of hunter-gatherer societies, published in the journal Obesity Reviews
New research into hunter-gatherers has surprising implications for diet and exercise choices
Hazda Hunters, northern Tanzania
Diets, habits and physical activity levels of modern hunter-gatherer groups with lifestyles very like those of ancient populations took the attention of a research group whose findings were recently published in the journal Obesity Reviews. The major takeaway of the research was that in reviewing these small-scale societies all appear to exhibit generally good metabolic health, although their diets varied widely. Their diets, understandably, were represented largely by what was available to them given their geographic location and their cultural habitude in hunting and gathering.

Some of these tribes obtained around 80 percent of their calories from carbohydrates while others consumed mostly meat, yet almost all eat a mix of meat, fish and plants, foods packed with vital nutrients. On the other hand, fiber is a mainstay of these diets -- derived from carbohydrates stemming from consumption of vegetables and starchy plants with a low glycemic index -- not leading to rapid blood sugar spikes. Sugar remains a part of their diets, derived from gathering honey.

One other thing distinguishes them from modern society and which they all held in common; physical action where many of these tribespeople walk up to eight to sixteen kilometers each day. Peculiarly enough, the study found no higher energy expenditure levels than those expended by the average modern-day office worker, suggesting that exercise be recommended by health authorities on the basis of improving metabolic health -- not necessarily as an antidote to obesity through calorie-burning.

Healthwise, what sets these modern hunter-gatherers apart from their modern, cosmopolitan counterparts is a relative absence of chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and cancer, as well as having lower obesity rates. They exhibit quite high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, even as they age, and Type 2 diabetes and metabolic dysfunction are conditions that are rare among these populations.

On the other hand, infant mortality rates, led by infectious diseases tends to be high and deaths occasioned by accidents, gastrointestinal illness and acute infections are commonplace, yet those who survive to adulthood reach their elder years fairly free from degenerative diseases of a type that are recognized as 'normal' in industrialized nations. In the hunter-gatherer groups, people tend to remain fit and active until death.

Studies indicate that when people of hunter-gatherer societies move to urban centres, adopting lifestyles so unlike their own, high rates of obesity and metabolic disease arise among them. Dr. Gurven from the University of California, researches the Tsimane in Bolivia -- a group with a subsistence lifestyle of hunting, gathering, fishing and farming -- studying them extensively and publishing detailed reports relating to their exceptional cardiovascular health and lack of diabetes.

However, among those he studies have been some who have left their villages to move to the town of San Burja located nearby, to take up sedentary office occupations, and in the process surrender their traditional diet. That alteration in lifestyle results in health-deleterious effects that erode their fine health condition so common in their traditional diet and lifestyle.

Dr. Pontzer and colleagues used data collected from the Hadza, a community commonly spending their time hunting and foraging in northern Tanzania, a reflection of how their ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, consuming what is familiarly spoken of as "the oldest diet", relying on a limited number of foods whose lack of novelty and variety in such diets may explain why they tend not to overeat and become obese.

The greater the variety of food choices in modern society, the longer it appears, before people experience that 'full' feeling, a sensation understood as 'sensory specific satiety'. "It's the reason you always have room for dessert at a restaurant even when you're full", explained Dr. Pontzer. "Even though you've had a savoury meal and you can't eat one more bite of steak, you're still interested in the cheesecake because it's sweet and that button hasn't been worn out in your brain yet."
Foods rich in fibers are a staple of a healthy diet. This was one of the very few similarities across all investigated diets. Image credits: Keith Weller, USDA.

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